Episode 2: Jeff Lowenfels Explains Mycorrhizal Fungi, Compost Teas, & Soil Food Web
In this episode, we chat with Jeff Lowenfels about the benefits of mycorrhizal fungi, how to get the right species for your plants, and the best way to apply. We also talk about the benefits of re-using your soil and no-till as well as learn more about the ways in which plants uptake nutrients and the role microbes play in that process.
Tad: Welcome to the Cannabis Cultivation and Science Podcast, I'm your host Tad Hussey of KIS Organics. This is the podcast where we discuss the cutting edge of organic growing from a science-based perspective and draw on top experts from around the industry to share their wisdom and knowledge. Our guest today is Jeff Lowenfels, Jeff is the co-author of Teaming with Microbes The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web published by Timber Press in August 2006 to great acclaim and revised in 2011; it is touted as the most important gardening book published in the past twenty-five years and won the prestigious garden Writers of America Gold Award for gardening books. It’s been translated into Korean, French and soon Slovenian. Jeff is also the author of Teaming with Nutrients, The Organic Gardeners Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition published by Timber Press in May 2013, and the shorthand title is How Plants Eat and What To Feed Them. It is sure to make you appreciate the beauty of how plants operate as well as make you a better gardener and steward of the earth.
His latest book Teaming with Fungi was just released at the end of 2016 and is all about mycorrhizal fungus. Jeff is an extremely respected and popular national garden writer; he is the former president of the Garden Writers of America, was made at G.W.A fellow in 1999 and inducted into the G.W.A Hall of Fame, the highest honor a garden writer can achieve in 2005. Most important, Jeff is the founder of a national program that started this Plant a Row for Beans the soup kitchen getting an Anchorage and is now Plant a Row for the Hungry; the program is active in forty-eight states and result in over a million pounds of produce being donated to feed the hungry every year. Jeff has been a good friend now for over a decade and is a wonderful advocate for organic gardening compost tea and the microbes in our soil. Thanks for coming on the show Jeff!
Tad: I'd love to talk to you more about first off your books in terms of the amount of success that you've had with this, how do you recommend for users to make practical applications for a lot of the information in Teaming with Microbes, Teaming with Nutrients and Teaming with Fungi?
Jeff: Sure, well I think each one has a different sort of indicator and things that people you know walk away with. You know for example Teaming with Nutrients I hope people are walking away with the idea they need to test their soil you know no one ever does and then they go buy any fertilizer they think they need and put it on and you know they have microbe food either way and they have absolutely no idea whether or not their soil or their plants need it and so I think that's the important take away from that one in addition to maybe picking up a little bit of wonder about what goes on inside those thirty trillion cells in every individual tree you know that you're looking at etc, etc.…
Teaming with Microbes I think is something that the takeaway is that we've been doing things wrong, we've been feeding the plants instead of the microbes, we’ve be concerned about the fertilizers impact on the plant instead of thinking about what everything is doing to the environment that the plant is growing in and what is the impact on the soil and the soil structure you know really just looking at how we grow things the wrong way and I don't think you can read teaming with microbes and walk away thinking that that old fashioned post World War II you know throw out Miracle Grow kind of set up makes any sense whatsoever so that's that one. And then the third book with fungi is really to me sort of paving the way to the future, there is no question that when you grow plants they need mycorrhizal fungus and what we're learning about that is encapsulated in that book. We were just talking before the show about some of the problems with mycorrhizal fungi products but there's no question as we move forward we're going to solve a lot of those problems and these are going to be items that we use you know just like the average American uses Miracle Grow today as far as I'm concerned. They'll be applied to every plant; no plants will be sold without them being added to the soil first, all nurseries will be using them.....
Tad: Monrovia nursery is one of the largest wholesale producers in the country they've been using it for years now isn’t that right, through Mycorrhizal Applications?
Jeff: Absolutely and more and more nurseries are up and Monrovia has been a real pioneer every single plant they sell, they got a mycorrhizal partner to it so yeah it is the way to go. I mean let's face it; 96% of all plants have a mycorrhizal association well if that's so then the ninety-six percent of what you're growing needs to have that mycorrhizal association and we now know that it's not necessarily there naturally. Fifteen years ago we would have said well you know these things are ubiquitous, they're everywhere you don't need to add them.
Tad: Well if you're cloning a plant you know that there really isn't a chance for it to be introduced naturally right?
Jeff: Well it's not so much a clone situation but even in regular normal soil you know we used to think that the spores would blow all around the Earth you know gee, after all, they are so small. Well you know it turns out that the ectomycorrhizal fungi always are the ones that you might find in a you know a big conifer forest Yeah they may blow three or four miles; that's interesting so if you have a nursery three or four miles away yeah you don't need to use ectomycorrhizal fungi but if you're fifteen miles away yeah maybe you do. We know why we are telling this situation we know that using fungicides- certain fungicides not of all of them creates a situation we need to add them. We know that when you're planting seeds that it makes sense to make sure that the roots are infected instantly and so it makes sense to put the mycorrhizal fungus or fungi on the seed itself so that you get you inoculation immediately rather than have to wait. You know so there are any number and now we know that if you use too much phosphorous or too much nitrogen you know you've created a situation where the plant won't signal for relationship to begin and so you begin to get a whole different view than what we had fifteen or twenty years ago; which is why I wrote the book frankly I mean the progression of knowledge that we've had with regard to mycorrhizal fungi has been amazing absolutely amazing and so when I wrote Teaming with Microbes before the first edition of Teaming with Microbes you know I had a paragraph on; I had to revise Teaming with Microbes in order to add a chapter and then finally I think things changed so much they just made sense to write the whole book.
So because really that's an area just like the soil food web subject matter and you know and really even with how plants eat we don't learn these things in school. And you know we should; we learn the names of dinosaurs but we don't learn the names of- you understand what I mean it's so interesting. It is important stuff and if you're a gardener I believe and you know that's just sort of my opinion; I believe you have to know the science behind what you're doing.
Tad: So let's back up just a second for people who may not be as familiar with mycorrhizal fungus as you or I; you mentioned ectomycorrhizal fungi which as you know forms a relationship with conifers. m]Most of our gardeners and growers are going to be wanting and endo-mycorrhizal fungus; can you just give a quick background on some of the benefits of mycorrhizal fungus
Jeff: Sure well first of all if you know there are seven or eight different kinds of mycorrhizal fungi and they're all defined based upon how they enter the plant and how they relate inside the plant root as you know these fungus don't invade the cells of the plant, they are invaginated; there's a little area formed around them then there's a transfer between the two membranes, between the fungus and the plants... So anyway depending how they do that they get a different name so there's an orchid mycorrhizal fungi and then there's the endo-mycorrhizal fungi which are invisible, they have to be stained in order to be seen, they have relatively large spores which can be seen with a magnifying glass quite easily and you can even sieve them out of soil and then there's the ecto which have very small spores you know we've all seen those little mushroom spore prints they are ectomycorrhizal fungi, they are visible you can see them as they wrap around roots and you can generally see their fruiting bodies which are normally mushrooms or you know underground mushroom-like structures.
Now the endo you're right are generally for things that we would grow in a garden; row crops, cannabis- those would all be endo crops and there are these two basic devices- the endo and the ecto. The ecto was the fungus that made you know plants able to grow on earth; terrestrial land and they are four hundred million years old or so; the endo are a little bit later they're about two hundred million years old and you know we've really discovered that even though there are many of them there are about three hundred fifty endo ectomycorrhizal fungi that we are aware now, we can only breed about eight to fifteen of them in laboratory conditions and fortunately for us, the endomycorrhizal fungi sleep around with different plants so that they the same one that will inoculate a cannabis plant will also inoculate a carrot or a potato. I hope I'm right on that one I should really go look that up before I say that but so we're lucky that these eight or nine that we're able to produce and are able to associate with a bunch of different kinds of plants and if you know the right one to use then you're going to be golden.
So for example, if we may speak about cannabis since it's legal in many states; the endomycorrhizal fungi for cannabis is relatively identifiable and very available and when you pick up a package you can see whether or not that package contains it; it's rhizophagous irregularis, that’s one of the names unfortunately because of the inability to really be able to identify what they are up until the past year or two these things have had various different names and now what we've been able to do because we can now do RNA and D.N.A. testing on them to give them their proper names; now we know exactly what to call it and so over the next five or six years people are going to have to change all their labels but right now if you buy the book, for example, you'll see certain names in four or five years from now those names won’t be in use anymore because now we're doing D.N.A. stuff.
So but in any case, you can look up on the web and find out what mycorrhizal fungi or fungus your individual plants might need and then you can see if they have them on the labeling and what put it down.
Tad: Now when you say put it down let's talk about best practice in terms of applying; so you've mentioned applying it to seeds?
Jeff: Right, I like to roll my seeds in them. Well, first of all, let's back up a second when you read the book, of course, I’ve given all the great little trade secrets away; it's the plant that sends the signal out to make the association and the plant won't send the signal out if it's already getting what the mycorrhizal fungi will bring back to the plant, so if you're giving the plant too much phosphorus or enough phosphorus it's not going to make that signal, if you give the plant too much nitrogen it's not going to send out that signal. So you've got to make sure first of all that you're not overdoing the stuff that you're already using- once you make that determination and again really you got to test your soil see what's in it, see what kind of levels you have, etc; everybody should be doing that again that's the take-home for the second book. Once you do that then there are several different ways that you can inoculate your plants which is sort of a funny word because you're really not inoculating your plant, the plant is calling for the fungus to come and infect it, but we use the word inoculation. So rolling the seeds is one way and certain plants, for example, orchids, with their particular kind of mycorrhizal fungi won’t even germinate unless they're in the presence of that fungus. Not so with cannabis and carrots and you know tomatoes and that kinda stuff but if you roll it on the seeds it's right there so that as soon as you get germination the seed root can send that signal out, you want to get early inoculation.
Tad: So tell me what you think of this procedure. So the way I look at mycorrhizal fungus is as a insurance plan essentially, so if my plant isn't getting enough phosphorus I'll know that that mycorrhizal fungus is in there, there is a way to make sure that that happens and fully realize that mycorrhizal fungus has a lot more benefit than just phosphorous uptake, but the way I look at it so it's a you know one or two-time application when I'm transplanting directly to the root zone.
Jeff: Right, I roll the roots in it if I can or sprinkle it right on the root.
Tad: Yeah and I think we're talking about a high-value crop like a tomato or cannabis plant that seems like a really great option and also another reason to use maybe a little bit less nutrient-rich initial propagation media...
Tad: So that we are applying too much phosphorus potentially.
Jeff: That's right yeah that's exactly right; your attitude is a good attitude you know if that’s your way to approach, to the way you farm and garden and that is a good approach which is I'm taking care of the plants, I'm here I want to little extra insurance. Some people's approach is I don't really want to do anything, I want the plant to do it all itself and that's a slightly different approach but I think that they both start the same way; you have to inoculate the plant, make sure that they are infected so that you can do either way.
Tad: The challenge I find is that gardeners and growers are all alike and they can't live well enough alone, they want to tinker, they want to feel like they're in control with that whole Miracle Grow paradigm that you talk about in your talks and in your book, so knowing that just adding it just in case and then giving the plants what ten to fourteen days for mycorrhizal colonization before you start doing any sorts of phosphorus application, is that a good rule or what.
Jeff: Well as long as you can I mean it can take you know up to two months sometimes for some of these things to work so you want to do it as early as possible and you want to wait as long as you possibly can but you're right I mean we have a tendency to think that we're in control and that's OK there's nothing wrong with that but it's one of the things that you know you have to temper in and again is one of the reasons why I wrote the second book Teaming with Nutrients which is a book I wrote for myself not necessarily for the general readership and the reason why I wrote it is I really didn't know how plants ate; how did they take stuff in, how do they use the food that the mycorrhizal fungi brings back to them you know what happens inside those individual cells and I was dumbfounded by the complexity of what goes on inside the cells and I was dumbfounded by the similarity of what goes on inside the cell versus what goes on in all our universe and the old Horton Hears a Who kind of thinking pattern is what I come away from after I read that book and it's the reason why I'm sort of waxing about this a little bit is because as you think about your approach to gardening, as you think about what these mycorrhizal fungi are doing and when to put them on and how you want to use them and what you want them to do; your appreciation for that can only multiply once you fully understand the internal functions of a plant and I'm not talking about botany you know I'm not talking about learning pistils and stamens and all that kind of stuff, I'm talking about what do they do with the stuff that you give them.
You know that when that mycorrhizal brings that phosphorus back what does a plant do with it and once you get that you get an appreciation of how the plan operates, then when you decide I'm going to give the plant everything you can, I want a little bit of insurance or gee I'm going to let the plant just do its own thing you get a rationale for why you're doing what you're doing. Does that make any sense?
Tad: yeah I know that makes a lot of sense, I think that's great. What I find interesting about that is you and I when we met decades ago on the compost tea side...
Jeff: I probably change your diapers no that's not true but I know your parents
Tad: So all those years ago when we met I had no understanding of you know plant physiology or how a plant uptakes nutrients and we were so focused on the biological aspects and nutrient cycling and I'd be curious to hear now that you've written Teaming with Nutrients it seems like you've sort of broadened your approach to re-encamping some things like soil testing for example.
Jeff: Yeah you and I both know that you could most probably get anything to grow in soil if you know you but if you change the biology that was our approach you know it was all biology, microbiology was the base and you moved on up that's Teaming with Microbes and you didn't need to test the soil you just needed to be sure that the biology was good but if you do test the soil you can not only adjust the biology you can adjust what's in the soil for the biology you know I mean it's you know when I got on the list it was run by Steve Solomon who wrote a series of books that basically were Albrecht oriented, balancing the minerals in the soil you know he didn't really read the book and he just gave me a lot of grief because he says you know this doesn’t work you've got to feed the soil you know and he kept beating up on Dr. Elaine Ingham who he kept saying you know he heard on numerous occasions whether she said this or not I'm not putting words in her mouth I'm just saying this is what he heard you know that you don't need to add any fertilizer you can grow a plant in any kind of soil based upon the biology and he didn’t believe that.
Well you know I still think it's true but I think it's easier if you can also adjust the nutrients in the soil as well. You know what I'm saying I mean in other words I don't think you really need to add anything to grow. No one ever fertilizes the Redwoods, which is what I always say but on the other hand if you get a Redwood and you're growing it and you give it the right biology but you also give it a little bit of you know biology plant food, things do pretty darned good; so yeah I've changed my attitude a little bit.
Tad: You know it's interesting about that; so just to give you a background I actually interviewed Steve, I joined KIS for a while back after reading the Intelligent Gardener because I found it fascinating and I too had heard Dr Ingham's claims essentially that if you get the proper biology in place there are sufficient minerals in all soils so that you don't necessarily need to be adding minerals which was what I think Steve took affront to I guess and it's unfortunate that these two camps take such opposing philosophies but I will tell you in the last year I have had Steve using aerated compost teas and experimenting with it and actually really liking the results.
Jeff: He also asked me at one point had me come back on the form because he finally read the book and decided maybe this isn’t so bad so yeah we're getting there you know maybe you and I just need to push a little bit more in some of these folks but there's no reason to be so dogmatic about these things that you can’t listen to somebody else.
Tad: Yeah so coming from the background that we have I'm learning more about soil testing and I'm definitely a big proponent of it now I'm finding that it's very helpful when we're especially looking at container soils or re-emanating potting soils, they don’t have everything that you're going to find in a traditional garden soil because it's all manmade.
Jeff: Don't you find that the information is power! I mean you know if you've got the information and you don't use it you know what's going on in your soil; it's power and we know that and we gardeners know that and every other aspect you know you could be a stockbroker and you’re gardener and when you're doing your stock stuff you get information, when you're doing your gardening my mother did this you know that’s not information, that's myth and you're right so you got to study this stuff and what you do is actually correct.
Tad: So we're not just buying the bag of tomato fertilizer because it has a tomato on it or the cannabis bottled nutrient because it's recommended but we're actually doing a little bit of research and have a little more knowledge so that we can make better decisions.
Jeff: Yeah you're cutting through the marketing so for example I know one of your practice is the same as my practice when I grow a lot of different kinds of plants and again I'll use cannabis as an example I don't throw my soil away, I can't understand why people do that is because they don't understand, they don't test and they don't understand what's going on in their soil for their plants. The reason why they are doing this is because marketing doesn't want them to, you know they want you to buy new everything every time it's crazy.
Tad: So on that note and in terms of the biological aspects of the soil since this is an area that you're really knowledgeable in, can we talk a little bit about compost teas and nutrient cycling while I have you here?
Jeff: Yeah sure let's do it, you know again pretty controversial subject Cooperative Extension Service would say we're crazy for even talking about it. Any number of people would think gee “does it work?” but why do you and I continuously use compost tea? are we crazy?
Tad: Back when we started it was an aquarium pump with an air stone everyone did think you know Doctor Ingham was crazy and none of this was going to work and yet now there's a ton of companies selling compost tea brewers; you see it more and more…nurseries it's definitely catching on
Jeff: Oh no question about it and there's no question that the concept behind it is catching on, the biological people are coating seeds now there are companies that do nothing but coat seed for bacteria. Well I mean the origins of that are compost teas far as I'm concerned so yeah you're right the compost tea brews have changed, they used to use the ones that you felt are wrong. We are moving, we've learned an awful lot about this stuff and a lot of it's because of guys like you and Tim Wilson and then, of course, Dr. Ingham and you know Carol Ann and so there's a lot of work continuing in the area but yeah I love compost tea and there's no question in my mind that it works.
Tad: Let's talk a little about some of the reasoning behind it, can we give people some theory behind why we're making compost teas and what it does?
Jeff: Sure well let's start with compost, we know that compost is a very effective growing tool either you grow directly in compost or you amend your soil media with compost and we know the reasons why, we know that compost contains the fertilizer bags in the soil food web which are the bacteria and the fungus; these are the bottom of the soil food web and when they are eaten by the fertilizer spreaders protozoa and nematodes which are also plentiful in compost the resulting waste products contain nutrient- nitrogen in particular - that feed plants because it's in the plant usable form- that's the first part of it; the second part we're beginning to understand is that when these microbes die their bodies may in fact and most probably are what create humus because it's one of those things that people have always been you know what is humus and it's most probably the dead bodies of these microbes.
So compost tea contains because it's compost where the energy supply to it, it strips out the bacteria and the fungus, the nematodes, and the protozoa in some instances we also feed them at the same time and multiply so compost tea contains the fertilizer spreaders and the fertilizer bags that are in compost; that's about as simple as I can make it. And if we're feeding it while we're making the compost tea we're getting those to increase in numbers and or size and so then when we apply the compost tea to a plant either as a foliar spray or as a drench those microbes then have an opportunity to impact the soil food web that feeds that plant.
Tad: Perfect! That explains it well. I do want to clarify one thing that I think it's important for listeners is to realize that not all compost is created equal so that bag of compost that at Home Depot that may have been sitting on the shelf for six months is probably not the same quality as something you may pull out of your very own worm bin for example and that makes a huge difference when we're making compost tea because a good brewer can only replicate the beneficial microorganisms that we put into it.
Jeff: That's right and there's probably little question that what comes out of your worm bin is better than what you buy at these other stores and then we'll go one step further I think a lot of us we like the idea although it's not from my perspective something this should be written as law but I like the idea of indigenous microbes to the extent possible, I like to know that the microbes that are brewing in the tea come from my area because I know that they're going to live. Now not all of them have to be from there so when we talk about mycorrhizal fungi you know we're bringing in the cetera et cetera and you use Alaska humus, you bring in a different set but by and large you want to use your own compost; I think but that's just my opinion.
Tad: I have heard that something like 99.6% of soil microbes are found pretty much worldwide but I assume in different concentrations, in different areas so things may be more successful in your soil up in Alaska than my soil here in the Seattle area so that does make sense and I think even if you're using you know let's say you don't have your own worm castings and you know that you can source those commercially and they'll be you know microbially active there's no reason you couldn't add some of your own compost or some of your own soil into the brew as a way of inoculating your soil with that.
Jeff: Absolutely! I guess what we're saying is if you've got to get compost from the store you know make sure you get the best you possibly can but if you can make your own boy that's the best way to go.
Tad: That sounds like a good rule, I like that. So from that let's expand so you have the high-quality compost and you're going to feed that with a food source whether it be molasses, fish hydrolysate whatever product you had to feed those microbes that are in the compost and putting it into a brewer as a way to increase the populations of those microbes and adding oxygen....
Jeff: And to strip out these guys because these things stick to the soil and so you've got to strip them out and what I always tell people is the stuff that's sticking soil together starts with bacteria, bacterial slime it's the same stuff you're brushing off your teeth in the morning you don't get up in the morning and just you know whoosh water over your teeth, you get up in the morning and you use energy to strip that slime away from your teeth and so that's what those brewers do- energy; strip that stuff away also to keep the oxygen up.
Tad: Great so here's a question I have for you; a lot of people see the plant succession chart in your book and say OK well I'm growing tomatoes- tomatoes they're going to want to bacterial dominate soil so they get focused on making bacterial teas but in your book you also and when you talk you talk about how the plant really controls this process of what it needs based on the exudates it is putting out into the soil; so is there any reason not to just make a balanced tea with good nutrient cycling every time and let the plant control that?
Jeff: Yeah that makes a lot of sense; let me back up for a second because you picked the wrong example. It turns out you know that you can keep a tomato growing for years and years and years and years is it really are annual, I don't think it is, I think tomatoes are perennials and I mulch them with brown mulch but that's just me. So but I understand what you're saying you know the plant puts out its own exudates in nature, it attracts what it needs, the plant has the ability to change its exudates to attract different things that it needs and so yeah I mean I love the idea of first of all when we talk about reducing soil lot of times I make my tea out of compost that they get out of a pot, it's growing a plant but I want to use the tea up; makes sense doesn't it? I think
Tad: I like that I see looking under the microscope that are different potting soil and such if you use good compost your potting soil can have quite high biological activity and there's no reason you couldn’t increase that in the compost tea brewer so I love that idea.
Jeff: Yeah well not only increasing the samples from but in theory again it's hard to tell but unless you get DNA testing.... let's say you're growing a tomato plant, you use soil from an old tomato plant in your compost tea in theory you've got exudates from the tomato plant that attracted the microbes that it wanted in and so those microbes are in that stuff you put in the microbes and in theory that's what's being multiplied; some of them, so giving the plant back again the very kinds of microbes that it wanted in the first instance which makes its job a little bit easier.
Tad: So is there any time you would brew fungal dominate tea or bacterial dominate tea because I see a lot of these recipes online on various forums and websites I haven't seen a lot of microscope work to back a lot of these recipes.
Jeff: Yeah they're tough and if I was trying to throw something on a tree trunk we planted you know I would try to make this fungal as possible you know from falling stuff down around perennials I try to make it as fungal as possible whether I’m achieving the fungalality I don't really think I am but I'm trying and at least what I think I'm doing is I’m imparting into the tea the right kind of substrate for fungus to be able to use once it’s down in the soil around the leaf so maybe I'm helping it in that regard. Did that make any sense?
Tad: I think so. So we always want to try- fungal teas it's hard to get good fungal growth in teas in general but overall that doesn’t mean we are losing any bacteria, I've yet to see a tea with good fungus that didn't also have you know relatively good bacteria levels.
Jeff: Yeah I mean in my thought is the bacteria level basically still the same you know, it's the fungus that you increase so to speak in a way. That's not really true I should take it back but it's sort of what it feels like.
Tad: yeah and ultimately it's a shotgun approach so if we put out a good diversity and biomass of beneficial microbes then the plant can really control what it wants, the others will die you're not going to hurt a plant by putting a fungal tea on a annual crop like cannabis right?
Jeff: Oh heck no and see what's not used will die and will even turn into humus or be eaten up by something else in the food web and it’s all good. You know all of those little microbes whether they're used or not by the plant at least the microbes themselves contain organic matter, contain nutrients they are retained in the soil system right at the root level and when they die all the goodies that are in them go to somebody else of eventually it ends up in the plant so it's all good
Tad: While we're on the subject of soil dominance; I want to kind of throw you a curveball here.....
Jeff: Wait let me just back up on that, OK I think extract is also something people might want to think about I mean obviously I like compost teas better but lot of people just want to you know do couple of times a year they don't want to make compost tea, they don't want to buy a KIS brewer You know they're crazy this is the best thing in the world but you know so they take some cheesecloth and they put compost in it and they just knead it in water for fifteen or twenty minutes and they'll get good microbes in that soup, they won't get the multiple numbers that you get in the compost tea but at least they'll get some of the stuff out of the compost and they can make sort of extract out that way- so if they want to just sort of fool around with that a little bit they can try that instead
Tad: That's a great point it doesn't have to be expensive you don't necessarily..... Tim Wilson on his Microbe Organics site has a stir method that he listed, that he's tested with a microscope that people can use.
Jeff: right and people really need to go to his site, it’s a great site and he really knows his stuff but OK yeah
Tad: yeah he's on my list for an interview as well. Here's a question when we're talking about microbial dominance in soil and we look at that plant succession chart and I know you're a big proponent of no-till for a lot of reasons; I see that taking off in the cannabis community now a lot of cannabis growers are doing that and I just recently published a blog post on the subject I am not completely on board and I'll give you my reasoning and then you tell me what you think. So we know that cannabis is an annual crop it's going to prefer bacterial dominant soil that's why tilling is effective in a lot of cases, it's unfortunately why they're tilling the rain forces to reset that soil I mean destroy some of that small structure; now the big problem I have with roto-tilling is as you know it creates a compaction zone at the depth of the tiller and completely destroys you know fungal and all of that but when we're talking about indoor cannabis growers and beds and containers we're not getting out a rototiller we're not actually tilling the soil, if we were to dig that soil to allow us to get more nutrients back into the soil rather than just top dressing continually I found in side by side tests has we seem to get better results without the same levels of microbial life but I would love to get your opinion on it.
Jeff: Let me back up for a second- you’re actually right, you want a bacterial dominated situation when you're growing cannabis and most of our row crops for that matter so what you're saying, in theory, could also apply to carrots, parsley and not parsley because it's a bi-annual but you don't think, you apply it to your row crops in your outside garden as well; so in a sense what you're saying is gee is this no-till make a lot of sense? It's not just what it does in terms of bacterial versus fungal you know there are other things going on in the soil food web that we've got to balance out and you know this I'm just we're just discussing you know I'm not saying you don't know this; so for example when you when you rototill, you chop up the mycorrhizal network and destroy it and so it has to re-establish itself that impacts the carbon that gets put into the soil because the endo-mycorrhizal fungi are coated with glomalin and that's where about thirty-five percent of your carbon comes from, it comes from those mycorrhizal fungi and if you mess up the system by rototilling you know then you've got to diminution in carbon.
For example, when you cut a worm in half as I like to say you don't get two worms you know unless you hit it at the 18th segment you get to halves of a dead worm and if you hit it at the 18th segment the first half-lives if you believe that. So there are other things that you do with the soil food web.... I understand what you're saying and when you're talking about a container-grown plant or a small bed grown plant I mean we're really not talking about roto-tilling
Tad: We're taking a shovel and maybe at max double digging a raised bed is what I'm comparing
Jeff: Yeah which is a very different thing from roto-tilling, you're not pulverizing the soil; are you?
Tad: No, you shouldn't be
Jeff: Yeah you shouldn't be I mean what you're doing is you're opening up the soil, you're adding in some amendments but basically you've got big gigantic clumps of it; so you know if it goes under the rule of the least disturbance possible- least disturbance possible; would I roto-till if I was growing it big beds? No but would I make sure that I had the ability for my roots to be able to grow apart? Yeah I would you know mean I’d do a little bit of disturbance. Won’t till the entire bed though and I certainly wouldn't throw the soil away and that's the other thing.
Tad: I think we're both on board for re-using the soil. I find that it's hard to provide because one of the other issues with indoor cannabis or cannabis grown in these beds were they’re re-using the soil with no-till is that it's very hard to get in an organic system all the dry nutrients down into the rhizosphere with zero downtime; you're re-using that soil you know twenty four to thirty-six hours after you pull a crop out of it and that's been the real challenge I think with you know strictly not tilling or disturbing the soil.
Jeff: Yeah I think people also don't understand the full rationale behind the edict of no-till, I mean it's not necessarily because you're screwing up let me correct myself it's basically because we're losing our soil because of roto-tilling; that's the real reason why the Department of Agriculture says no to works and why it's so good is because if you till in the Midwest that soil ends up in the East you know that we have dust bowl situations and no-till is…. we've destroyed our soils by tilling during the Dust Bowl, we created the situation which we've lost tremendous amount of soil through rototilling. No-till saves soil- so let's start right there, that's the most important thing about it. From a soil food web perspective no-till prevents damage from happening to the soil food web and the third thing is there's a general acknowledgment among organic people who grow things that it is difficult to get the solid stuff down into the soil food web.
I like to tell people gee you put the compost on the surface, I think Elaine says the same thing and in you know eighteen months has worked its way down and 10 to fifteen inches because of the soil biology; well that's fine if you want to put the stuff down in the fall and wait till springtime but if you're doing it as you say a crop every two months, maybe that doesn't work so well then you have to balance the concept of loss of soil which doesn't happen indoors right? So you don't have to worry about that from a rototiller perspective versus that you know the balance off with damage to the soil food web that you want to maintain when you're doing an indoor grow most of the soil food web that you're really concerned about is microbiological you know and micro arthropod as opposed to macro. Would you agree? I think that's true, would you agree
Tad: Yeah definitely
Jeff: So again the concept of roto-tilling indoors doesn't quite do the same amount of damages it would outdoors you know cutting the worm into half so speak. The beetles that you want to make sure there are they're making air holes and you know you don't care about those on the indoor grow. So yeah you can disturb the soil but I still wouldn't polarize it.
Tad: Great right it's good to hear an opinion on that.
Jeff: Now let me just add one other thing and that is when you read Teaming with Nutrients and again I hope everybody does it very- to me, it's a difficult book to read I mean the first and the third book and those are easy books but Teaming with Nutrients required chemistry and nobody likes chemistry; nobody likes the idea of chemical formulas and then when you start to get the idea that not only you are going to have to know chemistry but you're going to have to know the photosynthetic formulas you know then people back off and I want to just assure everybody I did not ever want to write about the Krebs cycle or photosynthesis and so that you will not find that in Teaming with Nutrients but it's a little bit thicker book to read than the other two because it does involve a little bit of chemistry and so but I encourage people to read it; it's really important stuff and all three of the books fit together and so you know to hold your nose and just take your time and read it.
And I forget why I was even mentioning that something important- in that book you know what I say is that when you start your systems and if you're planting in the fall and you're preparing your soils in the fall and getting ready in the springtime you put a band of those nutrients down just below the root system so the roots can grow into it. So you anticipate it, you put it down already you know and then you put the soil on top and then you don't roto-till for four or five years because you've got a nice layer of good organics and good nutrients down there. So there are all sorts of ways to approach it; let’s say you’re doing a bed indoors you could put your nutrients down at the bottom of the bed and you're good for three or four grows I would imagine.
Tad: Interesting so that brought me to another question because it got me thinking about teaming with nutrients because I've read that book a couple of times and the biggest challenge for me is the vocabulary, there's a lot of words that I’m just not used to hearing or pronouncing or even remembering what goes with the word and you did what you could with that but the words are what they are there's no way you can change the vocabulary….
Jeff: And again what a shame that we don't know those words because they're words about what happens inside plants; you may not be a vegetarian you know but that cow you're eating is. I mean this is what runs our world, from oil, the coal, everything and we don't know the vocabulary because they didn't teach it to us in school because they didn't think it was important; it is and for our hobby it’s very important.
Tad: I agree, I think it's a challenging book like you mentioned but it's well worth the time and I mean Teaming with Microbes is sort of the Bible of a lot of gardeners and growers nowadays and I think it only covers one aspect like you mention of this whole process and I think you’ve grown and learned and changed your philosophies even since you wrote it; I mean when did you write that book, it had to be over ten to fifteen years ago?
Jeff: Yeah 2006 is when the first edition came out you know and the revised edition came out 2011 I think, and you're right and what I discovered and I hope everybody else discovers this as well because I don’t want to write anymore books; you know when you write a book it's like you know you go in this little teeny rabbit hole and you're down there and that's it you're down there till you're finished and so you know what I got out of it was enough tools between the three books because I learned- I didn't know any of this stuff you know I mean I got enough tools I think to be able to sit down, to be able to piece together things and so when people ask a question for example and you're the same way now I can see well let's see on it from soil food web perspective is this is part of the answer you know but from a nutrient perspective that's part of the answer you know it's that and I've got enough tools to be able to figure out what I need to know and where to go when I don't know. It's amazing! Google, folks is the best gardening tool there is I have to say.
Tad: So one thing for Teaming with Nutrients that I took away was that there's a few different ways that a plant can uptake nutrients and the biological aspect is just one of those ways; what got me wondering a little bit more about you making humic and fulvic acid because a lot of gardeners and growers are using them and swear by them as I understand it that humic molecule is a little bit larger and chelates or bonds with these minerals and then the fulvic molecule allows to be taken directly through the cellular wall into the plant is that correct. Can you explain that a little bit better than I just did?
Jeff: Well I think it broken down so that it can be taken in, I don't think it goes in as fulvic acid it per se but I could be wrong in that regard but first of all let me suggest- first of all let me back up carbon in your soil is not coming from the humic acid or the fulvic acid, that’s thirteen percent; it's coming from the mycorrhizal fungi, it's coming from the glomalin that the mycorrhizal fungi are putting out into the soil which is another reason why you don't necessarily want to disturb the soil too much. That glomalin is there and when the branches of the fungi die off course I guess it doesn't really matter the fungi is dead anyway but so if you roto-tilling soil that’s already been harvested it probably doesn't make that much difference that's where your carbon is coming from but as far as the acids are concerned the humic and fulvic acids they go into the plant through the membranes and I guess to make it easy- the membrane, every cell in the plant has a membrane around it and the membrane has different little proteins in them and these proteins act like tunnels or pipes or revolving doors depending on what kind of protein they are to allow different kinds of nutrients and substances to get into a plant and each individual protein will only allow one kind of molecule through it.
So a phosphorous molecule will not be able to go through the tunnel that's been designed for nitrogen and so boron for example has its own tunnel; every one of the nutrients has its own individual way of tunneling into or getting into these individual and fulvic acid goes through one of those tunnels probably not as fulvic acid but probably and it has broken down and then it's constituted as fulvic acid once it's inside but I could be wrong in that regard. I have to look that up or for think about that a little bit but so that's why when before we're talking on the show we were talking about the idea that there are sixty-two different nutrients in kelp but your plant takes in eighteen different nutrients into those cells, so what happens to the rest of that stuff. Well, the rest of that stuff maybe in the area that is between the cell walls so there's ability for nutrients to get into a root, get into the actual cell itself; so it's swimming around in the cytoplasm and the cell and it can go from one cell in the root all the way through the plant from cell to cell to cell to cell not going through xylem and phloem and stuff but just to the cells and it can go all the way up to the tip of the plant- through the cells and then that's called the simplast; then there's the apoplast which is the system of structure of the cell walls so that if you got into a cell wall in the root of the plant, in theory, you could hike from cell wall to cell wall to cell wall to cell wall never getting inside the cytoplasm, inside the cell never going through that membrane and also find yourself all the way up at the tip of that plant.
So a lot of the things, including fulvic acid and other things may in fact reside in those areas of the plant where they're useful and helpful for the microbiology that's you know helping operate the plant, feed the plants etc. It’s a trippy world!
Tad: So do you see a lot of benefits to say foliar applications using fulvic acid in a particular nutrient; I know Steve Solomon likes to say if you think your plants deficient in boron than do a foliar application of boron or copper or manganese or whatever particular micronutrient we're discussing.
Jeff: I think they have their purpose, I'm not a big fan of feeding your plants foliar and I'm not sure boron- you know some of the nutrients are mobile some of them are not mobile and they're all listed in the book, etc and as I said it’s very complicated. Well one of the hardest things I had to do when I was researching a book was which nutrients are mobile; really mobile and which ones aren't because some people think that you can put any nutrients on the leaves and all of them will travel to where they need to go in the plant and that is not true and you know some people think none of them travel foliar other than you know three or four or five cells away; so I'm not a real big proponent of it and in fact I got some stuff sitting here; somebody wants me to test a bunch of stuff it's some kind of foliar nutrient food and I don't know why the science would change but I'll try it.
Can it hurt the plant? Generally no and I could very well be wrong because I usually am so maybe it'll even help the plant so I don't want to discourage people from trying but I think people ought to test.
Tad: I think testing is important here so when you talk about that you mean setting up an experiment and having a control and making sure that you're comparing apples to apples
Jeff: Yeah if you can or finding somebody else who did, you know again you can go on Google Scholar and find millions amounts of information in testing and then you can sometimes contact manufacturers and talk to them about how they do their stuff you know or you find people like you, I mean you’re testing all the time you put your stuff up blogs and things like that you know Tim Wilson he tests all the time and you know people need to pay attention. A little less of the lip service of people talking about how big their vegetables are, a little bit more about how they got there.
Tad: oh I think that the cannabis industry has come a long way in that regard especially because it was such an underground industry in a lot of states; there really wasn't a lot of research and testing and just shared knowledge beyond what was going on in some of these forums and that information was really all speculation for the most part. So we're starting to see a lot more research and testing coming out which I think is amazing.
Jeff: I think it’s mandatory, it’s so important and one of the great things about the cannabis industry is that it can only go one way and that is ‘organics’- I'll use quotes around that if you want me to but you no state regulator wants their state cannabis to be full of pesticides and bad things and no grower I think wants to imbibe their own stuff full of bad things and so it's wonderful for the soil food web business seems to me and all the more reason why people need to understand what's going on so that they can control if that's the proper word the environment so that they don't need to have bad things.
Tad: And if you want to reuse your soil it's important that you're not putting a lot of you know mineral salts onto it that would require a ton of leaching to remove.
Jeff: Yeah oh absolutely I don’t even think about it, I mean I've always reused my soil, I just don't understand why people would throw away good organic soil? You know I guess what that process is the nutrients have been sucked out of the soil; really is that possible? You know A and B. so what- you know everybody should understand and again this is one of the lessons of the second book; there are so many lessons in that second book even though it's not my favorite of the three.
I mean the normal rule is called the Law of Return, the Law of Return is what operates in nature so the reason why nobody feeds the Redwoods is because when their needles drop they go through the soil food web process, they’re recycled, the nutrients that are in those leaves you know they are recycled and go back into the plant, nothing is lost between the lip and the cup. When you're growing a crop you're breaking the law of return by removing the stuff that normally would go back into the soil and put the nutrients back in again OK if you understand that you're breaking the Law of Return then you put yourself on parole and you put the stuff back in some form or fashion either by using a chemical, fertilizer if you're a chemical head or by putting in a substitute organic material if you're a soil food webby and then there you go simple as that; it's just the Law of Return. It's the Law of Return and if you've broken it you know then nothing's going to work, doesn't matter whether you're a chemical head or where they are you know and so your soil of course is great stuff it's just got that little missing piece; put it back.
Tad: So every time we harvest the plant we're not pulling out organic matter, we are pulling out nutrients; we can replace those and the advantage is if I understand you correctly of replacing these nutrients and reusing the soil is that we get soil structure in our old reused soil and we also get nutrient cycling and all these beneficial microbes working together rather than starting from scratch.
Jeff: well I guess that there's two other things I would add- I hope I can remember the second one; the first is of course is that you've got the microbes there in that sort of already they are dormant perhaps but you've got the makings of what the plant was using while it was alive, so if you're planting the same kind of plant in that soil again you know it doesn't have to try to attract you know the French microbe that it needs all the way from France because it's already in the pot or in that soil bed. And then the second thing course is that soil is, if you do it right it's not only structurally mature but it's got a set up designed or a condominium already built for new roots, so for example, if I was growing a tomato or cannabis in a pot, when I harvest it I cut the plant at the base I don't pull the roots out; all the organic matter that's in that root is there, all of the nutrients and all of that have flown towards that root system as a result of mass flow one of the ways the nutrients get to them- all of the microbes in the rhizosphere are still there.
And when I plant, the roots of the new plant will follow into the tunnels and byways and pathways of the old plant because it's easier for it therefore to expend less energy; so you get a lot of benefits by reusing that soil- not the least of which is you're saving money and of course on top of everything else you're being sustainable which is ultimately what we all need to be.
Tad: Great so I won’t take up too much more of your time- my last question would just be what’s by the most common question you ask with all the talks that you're giving around the country and with all three books out now, what are growers asking you?
Jeff: Do I get the book on Amazon or do I have to buy it more expensive from you? That's the question they ask me...
Tad: That’s not fair right?
Jeff: They can get it from Amazon, I don't care where you get it you just buy it. I think the number one question I get from growers- it’s a tough one, and in a way you sort of eluded to it and that is it's awfully hard to be organic because so you're using solid versus liquids; I don't that makes any sense. But there is a perception that using the chemicals because they're in liquid form they go right into the root system instantly it's easier and it's quicker and it's less fuss and you know it's better for your plant because you get the stuff right away…. versus gee I’ve put this stuff in my soil, they take so long for it to get there and you know unless its bat guano know the nitrogen is not going to be available for six months. I think people are concerned about the timing aspect of organics and I'll just tell them just calm down
Tad: Well so there are a lot of growers that are making various types of nutrient teas now too and certain things like fish hydrolysate like you mentioned bat guanos, there are other organic liquid nutrients that are a little faster acting- I would say the big difference for me is ionic versus non-ionic forms of nutrients so like you eluded, to is that nutrient immediately available in organic growing system? No, we may be waiting seven to fourteen days for that plant to respond.
Jeff: well even biologically that happens I mean it takes ten to fourteen days for those paramecium you know to start eating on bacteria down there. I mean there's no question there's a place for tea nutrients; no question. But you should be starting with great compost next soil or pure compost with good drainage to start with great stuff it's got great nutrients it to start with because you've tested it, you fed it, you've given it what it needs either directly or you know through the compost system then you should be good to go as long as you understand the Law of Return.
Tad: And I think the other thing where growers get stuck is they think that they can go with that chemical paradigm of “giant plant in a tiny pot” which just doesn't work for organics, you have to give the plant enough soil if you want to grow it organically. That's been a big challenge I think for a lot of growers they try and do a full cycle plant in a one or two-gallon container and want to know why they're unsuccessful.
Jeff: Yeah because they're used to hydroponics it's just different when you're using soil and you can you have to understand how the plant operates and you don't understand how the plant operates unless you read about it because they didn’t ever teach us this stuff in botany. And that's the downside, I never really took formal botany courses, I’ve read the botany books obviously they just didn't teach us this stuff, I don't think about this stuff and as more and more people are growing and coming back to growing and the thing about cannabis is it's the new tomato; I think. And the plant is becoming- we are having a little blip now with Jeff Sessions yeah yeah but as the plant becomes legalized in all fifty states which it certainly will, the idea of growing these plants won't just be for medicine or for the high they’re beautiful plants they're easy to grow, they're interesting plants, they have different colors, different leaf shapes just you know they're an ornamental plant and they're bringing people back to growing things again you can't help but start to grow some basil you know all of a sudden because you say what the heck you know I mean and it's a wonderful thing is happening with this cannabis stuff but the best thing from my perspective is I think it's altering how people are looking at Botany- it's got to include the roots as Dr. Elain would like to say I think. It's going to include the soil food web and now that I've written a trilogy of books and I can call myself Lord Of The Roots, I so speaketh.
Tad: Wonderful I really appreciate your time today Jeff, it was great just even just catching up with you and I got to talk about some of these things so...
Jeff: Well you know we don't get to see each other enough these days you know but I got to tell you, all my slides have a little KIS in it, I'm always thinking of you.
Tad: Thanks Jeff for taking the time to chat today all the way from Anchorage Alaska. Jeff’s books- Teaming with Microbes, Teaming with Nutrients, and Teaming with Fungi, are all available on our website at www.kisorganics.com or on Amazon has a digital download. You are listening to the Cannabis Cultivation and Science Podcast. I'm your host Tad Hussey stay tuned for future podcasts from leading experts around the industry. Don't forget that there is more information articles available on our website and blog at www.kisorganics.com and if you enjoy these podcasts, please take a moment to leave a review on iTunes and send me your feedback and suggestions to our website contact page.